A small city in upstate New York recently achieved a singular distinction with the highest safety belt use rate ever in the United States. "Buckle Up Now!," a publicity and enforcement program in Elmira cosponsored by the Institute and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, boosted belt use among front-seat occupants 27 points during three weeks, from 63 to 90 percent. Nationwide safety belt use now is about 69 percent.
This belt use program isn't the first in Elmira. Earlier ones sponsored by the Institute achieved use rates of 77 percent in 1985 and 80 percent in 1986 (see "Elmira, N.Y., belt use reaches 80 percent with publicity, enforcement," May 17, 1986). But these rates weren't sustained over time.
"Experience has taught us that enforcement and publicity yield impressive gains," Institute senior vice president Allan Williams points out. He adds that "some level of continued effort is required to maintain the gains."
The Elmira program was coordinated with an ongoing statewide effort, "Buckle Up New York," under way since last May. "We intend to raise safety restraint compliance in every one of the state's 62 counties, and Elmira is serving as a model for how to get that done," Superintendent James W. McMahon of the New York State Police says.
An enforcement blitz can be implemented more easily in states like New York that have primary belt use laws, permitting police to stop motorists solely for belt law violations. Only 17 U.S. jurisdictions have such laws. Elsewhere police must have some other reason to stop a vehicle before citing an occupant for failing to buckle up.
Nuts and bolts of the Elmira initiative
Chemung County Sheriff Charles Houper served as leader of the enforcement effort, and publicity was coordinated by a local communications firm. A well-publicized news conference served as the kickoff. The first checkpoint, held at the beginning of the second week, also attracted extensive media coverage. Signs displaying current belt use rates, posted at major intersections around the city, were updated every other day for the first two weeks and daily during the third week.
Newspaper and radio ads ran throughout the three-week period. Posters appeared in public settings, and flyers were placed on windshields. Police cars featured signs reading "We Enforce Seat Belt Law."
More than 32 checkpoints were conducted during the three-week initiative. A total of 823 tickets were written, including 474 for belt violations and 10 for child restraint violations. Belt use rates climbed throughout the program, reaching 75 percent after the first week and 84 percent by the second week.
According to a survey conducted after the Elmira campaign, 90 percent of residents were aware of the program. Sixty-one percent reported going through at least one checkpoint, and 79 percent of those surveyed said they favored enforcement to encourage safety belt use.
"There's abundant evidence that enforcement and publicity work, whether on a local basis or statewide," Williams says. The Institute designed a five-year program for North Carolina that increased safety belt use rates by about 20 points during the first year. The program maintained and added to these gains with periodic three-week enforcement and publicity efforts (see "North Carolina seeks to better impressive belt record" Feb. 15, 1997).
Now that a U.S. community has reached 90 percent, what will it take to get everyone buckled up? Williams says reaching the final 10 percent of occupants won't be easy. "With this group of people who still don't buckle up, it's obviously not a question of simply raising awareness. Stiffer legal penalties, including points on driver's licenses, may be required."
Percent safety belt use — Elmira, N.Y., September-October 1999